Janet Cunningham, Ph.D.
Drawing upon esoteric texts and her knowledge of ancient initiation rites, Dr. Cunningham discusses the diverse ways in which the ancient Egyptians conceptualized the “body.” As she shows us, they recognized not one but a number of interacting “bodies,” each having its unique purpose and necessary to the individual. She suggests that this model is of practical use to past-life therapists today.
Esoteric teachings throughout time have referred to subtle bodies. The ancient Egyptians have given us clues, through writing, art, and symbols, of their belief in bodies that are separate and independent. This concept can be used as a model in exploring the various experiences of clients in past-life regression and other transpersonal and spiritual experiences.
The ongoing question of Are past-life recalls actual memories or fantasies? has still not been answered. In spite of an overwhelming volume of evidence through the work of past-life therapists and practitioners and increasing willingness on the part of people to talk about spontaneous past-life recall, the discussion continues. Practitioners who have used past-life regression to release a phobia or other long-held patterns that do not appear to have their origins in a client’s current life enthusiastically support it to be a powerful healing modality, and generally accept the memories to be actual recall of events in a former life. The experiences of hundreds of therapists, over more than two decades, with vast numbers of clients between them, move most practitioners to accept the memories as authentic. Some practitioners, however, are not willing to acknowledge that although some regressions may be actual past-life memories, other regressions may be fantasy.
The disbeliever’s common argument is that of cryptomnesia, suspecting that the client obtained the material from reading or other access and that the information was held in the unconscious mind. With no empirical evidence available, it is usually assumed that the client and/or practitioner is delusional or fraudulent.
Many past-life therapists and practitioners step cautiously between these two views, referring to metaphor or archetypal images and mythology in lieu of memories. Perhaps this path is taken due to a) their own uncertainty, b) hesitation to step out on a limb beyond the accepted DSM-IV diagnoses required in orthodox psychology and therapeutic professions, or c) not having a viable model to bridge the gap between what may sometimes be fact and at other times be fantasy.
Now that the field of past-life therapy has been more actively engaged in official and unofficial research, it may be time to take a more critical view towards experiences in other dimensions of reality. By critical, I do not mean closed-minded skepticism, but taking a position of looking more deeply into the various levels of experience. We have reached a point in our field when we need to examine more deeply the experiences that are taking place. When is a past-life memory not a past-life memory? When is an out-of-body experience not out-of-body? When is a spirit visitation not what it appears to be? Although esoteric teachings in other cultures, such as Chinese and Kahuna, speak of subtle bodies, a study of the Ancient Egyptian bodies may give us the most comprehensive indicators and the most useful metaphors. One must first admit that any interpretation of the Ancient Egyptian spiritual beliefs by western scientists is questionable and limited. Today’s student of Egypt is not processing the information through the mind, language, or experience of the Ancient Egyptians. With this understanding, however, I offer a model based upon evidence from scientists and scholars of Ancient Egyptian studies combined with contemporary writers and consciousness researchers.
The Ancient Egyptian Mysteries
Although most scholars credit the origin of hypnosis to Mesmer in the eighteenth century, this is not factually correct. At least 2,000 years before Mesmer’s reintroduction of some of the techniques of hypnosis, ancient Egyptian psychiatrist-priests were using them (Muses & Young, 1972). According to an Egyptian papyrus from approximately 225 AD, methodical induction techniques in the art and science of hypnosis were being used by Egyptian priests. There is some evidence (Lenz, 1997; Grosso, 1983) that drugs or psychedelics were used to assist the initiate in undergoing the death and rebirth rituals, which were often fatal. Esoteric writers such as Leadbeater (1986), Hall (1995), and Haich (1965), refer to neophytes and initiates in the Egyptian Mystery Schools who were taught about other dimensions of reality; the mystery teachings were done under a strict code of silence. All of these writers refer to secret initiations in which the initiate — if he or she lived — experienced other levels of reality while being out of the physical body. According to Ring (1985), the initiatory rites of the Osirian and other ancient Wisdom Schools have parallels with the near-death experiences that are occurring today. As people today describe the aftereffects of their near-death experiences, so it was with those few who survived Initiation: They knew, not from faith but through experience, that they were immortal.
Do some people living today have that knowing? In my experience with many clients going into past-life memories of Ancient Egypt, it has been rare that people have clear memories of the teachings in the Mystery Schools or experienced the rite of Initiation. Although as of this date I have not sought information about initiation rites in cultures other than ancient Egypt, after working in the field of past-life therapy for over 13 years and having guided several thousand individual regressions, I know of only three people who, in a regression, retrieved memories of undergoing initiation in any culture or time. Those three experiences occurred sometime during the long history of ancient Egypt. This may be a realistic number since those who actually reached the level of readiness and/or accomplished initiation were few. I had one client who had a past-life recall of death in a sarcophagus during the rites.
There is a growing view that the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid was where the highest initiation took place. Brunton (1984), whose experiences in the Great Pyramid confirm some of the esoteric writers (Hall, Leadbeater, and Haich), says that in the beginning there is terror, uncertainty, wandering, and darkness. This tenor was described to me by a client who had prayed for two years to have an out-of-body experience; when it actually occurred, it was uncontrolled and horrific to her (Cunningham, 1997). According to Brunton, that experience is followed by a miraculous and divine light. Again and again, in the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Faulkner, 1994), one reads, I go to Osiris. I am One with Osiris; I am Osiris. This gives support to the theory of guiding the initiate to become a god living eternally with the gods. It becomes evident that, if one views these writings as guidance for the initiate as well as guidance for the deceased after death, the reader is encouraged to become One with the resurrected god, Osiris.
Bauval and Gilbert’s (1995) in-depth studies of the placement of the three pyramids at Giza indicate a perfect alignment approximately 10,500 years ago with the three stars in the belt of Orion. At that time, the air shaft from the Kings’ Chambers would have pointed directly to the constellation of Orion, associated with Osiris.
It is through this evidence, still being gathered from several different directions that include scientific, esoteric, and experiential sources, that one may recognize the wisdom and knowledge obtained by the high priests of ancient Egypt related to subtle bodies. Temple and tomb carvings, pictograms, and papyri tell us of different bodies that the deceased uses in traveling to the Netherworld. Most commonly referred to is the ba, thought of as the soul, and the ka, which has various meanings according to different authors (Ellis, 1995; Masters, 1988; Schwaller de Lubicz, 1956; van Auken, 1994; Naydler, 1996). Less information is known about other bodies, such as the haidit (also known as the khaibit or the shadow); the sahu and the khu. I discuss all of these below.
If, in fact, the priests of ancient Egypt guided initiates through a process that involved different levels of consciousness or out-of-body travel, it is logical to assume that they obtained knowledge that is reflected in their writing and art (Houston, 1995). It is generally thought that the images of the ba, for example, refer to the soul leaving after death. Grof (1994) disagrees; he posits that the Pert em hru, known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, refers to the esoteric teachings of the Mysteries, used in initiation rites.
Current Consciousness Research
In a personal discussion with the author, Richard Parkinson (1996) of the Egyptian Antiquities Department in the British Museum stated that the higher spiritual states referred to in ancient texts could only be reached after death. Jacq (1985) has a different view: “In the extraordinary words of the Pyramid Texts, the dead did not leave dead, but living.” I submit that the high priests of the Egyptian Mysteries were adepts in moving through various levels of consciousness, also referred to as bodies, and that initiates went through different stages of growth in learning and experiencing alternate realities. Pioneers in consciousness studies seem to agree. According to Grof, “a deeper study of these texts revealed that they had been used as guides in the context of sacred mysteries and of spiritual practice and very likely describe the experiences of the initiates and practitioners.” Grof suggests the writings presented as books of the dead “imply a clever disguise invented by the priests to obscure their real function and protect their deeper esoteric meaning and message from the uninitiated.” From Grof’s experience and research in non-ordinary states of consciousness:
…people can encounter an entire spectrum of unusual experiences, including sequences of agony and dying, passing through hell, facing divine judgment, being reborn, reaching the celestial realms, and confronting memories from previous incarnations. These states were strikingly similar to those described in the eschatological texts of ancient and pre-industrial cultures (Grof, p. 24).
Ring theorizes that some of the near-death experiences (NDEs) that he has researched hold a similarity to that spoken of in Egyptian writings. He also recognizes differences:
…because most NDErs have been thrust into their initiation without either purification or preparation, they may bring back a somewhat distorted version of its essential insights or, even if that is not the case, be unable truly to appreciate its significance or conduct themselves in accordance with its spiritual implications…In this light it may be useful to view the NDE as an initiation in the sense of a beginning rather than, as it presumably was for the Osirian initiates, the culmination of a process of spiritual development and refinement (Ring, p. 11).
Throughout the writings, tombs, and artifacts in ancient Egypt, scientists have found reference to various bodies, such as the ka and the ba, puzzling orthodox Egyptologists who are educated within the limitations of the Newtonian scientific paradigm. It is impossible to give definitive meanings to the Egyptian bodies; translations of the hieroglyphs and symbols are not in agreement and our language does not have the words to properly define subtle energy bodies.
Some scientists have acknowledged the ba as the Egyptian soul, and the ka as the double. However, in thousands of years of study, very little is known about any of the bodies of the ancient Egyptian spiritual beliefs. This, I submit, is due to the gap between the exoteric teachings to the masses, and the esoteric teachings that were secret and only revealed to initiates in the Mystery Schools.
The well known writings known as the Pert em hru, meaning manifestations in the light or coming forth by day, were referred to by modern discoverers as books of the dead because the manuscripts were commonly found in tombs. Occasionally the name of the deceased was inscribed on the papyrus, which seemed to be giving instructions for the afterlife. There is little doubt that the various writings are, in some manner, intended to guide the deceased’s spirit to an afterlife.
The two most commonly known bodies, the ba and the ka, played an important part in the spiritual beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. The ba repeatedly appears on coffins, tombs, and in the ancient texts on papyrus. Tombs were designed with a doorway or entrance for the ka to be able to come and go as desired. This independent existence of each of the bodies is noted again and again by scientists, although there is not always agreement on names and attributes.
A Viable Model for Past-life and Consciousness Research
After several years of study focusing on the ancient Egyptian bodies as viewed by various authors, I submit the following as a model that can be used to assist in the fact or fantasy debate related to past-life recall. I list the Bodies and their associations, then discuss them individually.
Khu (also Akh) – the divine intelligence
Sahu – the immortal body
Higher Ka – the Higher Self
Haidit (also Khaibit) – the shadow, the unconscious
Lower Ka – double, animating principle
Aufu – physical incorporating the above
Khat – physical body without consciousness
Aspects of Spirit
Ba – the immortal soul
Ab – the heart or seat of conscience – the seat of the intellect
Ren – the name, often conceived as words of power
Sekhem – power, will
Khu (also Akh)
Lamy (1981) refers to the khu as “a spiritual body said to preexist the creation of the world and to be the final goal of transformed matter.” Forman and Quirke (1996) refer to the akh as transfigured spirit or blessed dead. Masters posits the khu and sahu as the higher consciousness or higher bodies, indicating, “When these two bodies are made conscious, a person lives at once in two different realities.” Describing the akh, Ellis (1997) states, “If there was such a thing as a hierarchy of souls in the next world, the akh would probably be at the top.” The term is often translated by Egyptologists as blessed dead. Unlike the ka or the ha, the akh does not seem to have much to do with the earthly realm (Faulkner).
The sahu keeps an individual’s essence or fingerprint through its various incarnations (Ellis, 1995). The sahu “accompanies the human being in the endless cycle of birth, death, transformation, and rebirth. In each incarnation it carries the soul’s suitcase packed with the projected personality, the memories, the spiritual aims and purposes” (Ellis, 1995). According to Masters, the soul (ba) is in the sahu body and the authentic mystical experience takes place in the sahu:
…there are counterfeits and approximations, which some religious and spiritual disciplines misinterpret as a merging with the Divine Substance, God, or Ground of Being. Despite the extravagant claims made by some religions, the human being never goes beyond the human dimensions and could not survive contact even with the appearances or representations of the Neters in their far more subtle worlds. To speak of direct and immediate knowledge of God or of the Divine is a gross absurdity and born at best of ignorance and self delusion” (Masters, pp. 35-36).
Although the ka is a spiritual principle, its effects run the gamut from purely spiritual form to physical manifestation (Ellis, 1995). I have separated the ka of the spiritual principle into the higher ka and the form closer to physical manifestation as the lower ka.
In Egyptian reliefs and paintings, the ka is shown standing protectively behind the pharaoh, acting as a sort of guardian angel in life. Examples of this sort have led to an interesting interpretation of the ka as the spiritual body within the physical body. The ka is also represented as a pair of upstretched arms, frequently placed on a standard or an offering stand and embracing food offerings (Faulkner).
The representation of the royal ka has certain special characteristics not granted to other men’s ka’s. The sign of the ka is sometimes placed on the head of a small image of the pharaoh and follows him as his double, implying a totalization of the indestructible envelope of the king, who becomes unified with his ka. According to Schwaller de Lubicz (1956):
All that has been said about the ka of the king is the model and plan to be followed by men seeking spiritual achievement. Such men are few, and for the majority of human beings, Egypt did not develop the theme of the ka in this way. The divine ka is not embodied in ordinary man, who is controlled only by his lower ka and his kau. So the common symbol is not generally used to represent the higher ka (Lubicz, p. 361).
Naydler agrees, “…the royal rapprochement with the ka did not occur only after death, as it did for the mass of the people. The king was conscious of his ka during life” (Naydler, 1996, p. 196).
Haidit (also known as Khaibit)
Most commonly referred to as the shadow and occasionally as the personal unconscious, the haidit is an etheric, earth-bound shape or image projected onto place (Ellis, 1995). It is temporal; when the psychic charge is dispersed, the haidit passes away. The spirit of the dead may choose to appear in either the haidit or the sahu, which are subtle bodies composed of varieties of light. The haidit is an etheric residence on earth, the sahu a resident of the spirit world (Ellis, 1995).
According to Ellis (1995), the haidit is closest in form to what we know as the ghost; it expresses emotion and moves about in the world; it recalls the record of one lifetime only whereas the soul is the culmination of many lifetimes and experiences. Ghosts sometimes have unfinished business and retain remnants of the personality. If one’s earthly attachment is satisfied, then the etheric body will dissolve and the astral body will move into the spirit realm. Further, some ghosts are lost; others are messengers.
Masters views the haidit as hedonistic, with abilities to bring healing to the ka and aufu. It is the path to integration of higher and lower bodies. However, its will is feeble and suggestible unless the ka’s will has been highly developed.
Whereas ab desires are emotionally driven, ka desires are primal and instinctual, desires encoded into the species for sustenance, preservation, and reproduction. According to Ellis (1995), more than any other spiritual body, the ka is intimately linked to the transference of spiritual charge during life and death. If the ka’s appetites were left unsatisfied, they deflected the soul (ha) in its ultimate task of self-transformation. Unlike the ba and khu, the ka was not eternal simply because it existed in the spiritual realm; the creative, preservative power of the ka needs to be fed on the material plane (Ellis, 1995).
For the masses, to return to one’s ka meant to go to live with the ancestors; one’s children belonged to the generation of one’s ka and the “sins of the fathers and mothers” passed from generation to generation. The common man or woman, upon death, went to the ka, whereas only the pharaoh or high priests who had evolved to living in conscious awareness of their ka would leave the body with the ka.
The lower ka acquires self knowledge. According to Masters, it is the body of experience and if the ka does not develop itself, then the higher bodies will be crippled; in fact, it can lose its grasp of the world if the ka is not strengthened before exploration. He posits the ka to be the intellect, imagination, and will with the ability to make the unconscious (haidit) conscious by temporarily inhibiting its own mental processes to allow its field of consciousness to be occupied. The ka can become a detached observer to bring back memories from the haidit to integrate. Fantasy, according to Masters, takes place in the ka.
The most commonly mentioned form which the human personality could assume after death was the ka. However, unlike the khu, the ka can exist separately from an individual’s physical being while he or she is still alive.
The Aufu is the living conglomerate of spirit, mind, and body (Ellis, 1995). According to Masters, it is the mechanical bones, nervous system, and brain; it “remains closed off to direct knowledge of essential or higher realities, although it is affected by them” (p. 21). It is also affected by food and its environment and lacks consciousness of the higher bodies; it has “brain but no mind.”
The khat is the shell of the physical form: The empty vessel prior to conception and the vacant bodily shell after the winged soul has taken flight. The khat is the temple for the spirit and carries the DNA coding of our future (Masters).
The ba and the ab
Although I do not consider the ba and the ab to be bodies, these two aspects of humans are included due to their importance in the ancient Egyptian mythology.
I have discussed the ba somewhat above. The symbol for the ba is a bird with a human head, usually shown with the human head of the deceased. With the ba, there appears to be a special emphasis on its mobility. The ba appears to have manifested itself only when the body containing it was deceased, at which point it assumed its normal form as a human-headed bird, often depicted flying above the coffin (Faulkner).
The ab is the seat of consciousness — the intellect — of the ancient Egyptians. Unlike any other organ, after death the heart was mummified with the body. The brain was siphoned out of the body and thrown away; it was no longer needed to catalog and choreograph the movements of the body that had passed into the realm of death. The heart was the Egyptian equivalent of the mind.
The purely intellectual construction exemplified by the brain was a detriment in the realm of souls since the mind misconstrues information, twists and distorts facts. The heart was kept in the body because feelings and emotions are more truthful than thoughts (Ellis, 1995).
It is readily agreed among consciousness researchers that past-life memories do not reside in the brain. Scientists and scholars (Bohm, 1980; Sheldrake, 1983) refer to an energy field, and several scientists (Bache, 1990; Lucas, 1994; Hunt, 1995; Gerber, 1988) refer to past-life memories as residing in an energy field or mind field. I submit that today’s consciousness researchers are discovering the bodies (mind fields) of ancient Egyptian wisdom taught and experienced by initiates in the Mystery Schools.
Child psychology has taught us much about the processes by which the conscious mind and personality develop or may be inhibited due to the experiences of the young child. At the same time that the personality is developing (lower ka), the personal unconscious (haidit) is forming through life experiences and the increased perceptions of the unconscious. The haidit’s subtle energy body takes in more information and stores it, along with emotional reactions to one’s experience. The developing brain of the fetus or infant is experiencing, growing, and learning through inner and outer stimuli while the past-life memories are less accessible, residing in a more subtle energy field.
Additionally, while the conscious mind sleeps, it is the haidit that travels occasionally into other places, referred to as the astral dimension. The lower ka and the haidit are closer in form to the physical dimension and all humans operate in conjunction with these bodies, in addition to the aufu, the actual physical form which houses them. Depending upon the spiritual evolution of the person, he or she may or may not be in touch with any subtle energy body.
In ancient Egypt, only the pharaoh and high priests (which included males and females) had evolved to the point of bringing the higher ka into a form where communication with the lower bodies could take place. It is the higher ka (or higher self) that brings one in touch with the superconscious mind and higher spiritual wisdom. As we move into the New Millennium, more people are having transpersonal experiences that go beyond the physical dimension; some of these experiences involve the haidit, such as out-of-body experiences and various experiences of the dream state. Some of these experiences involve beginning connections to the higher ka.
It seems that past-life memories are stored in the sahu, the immortal body, and filter down into the lower vibrational bodies. It is interesting that the Egyptian name for the constellation of Orion is sah or sahu (Murdoch, 1998). Combining Ancient Egyptian mythology and modern astronomy, Trimble (1992) concludes:
the “air shafts” of (The Great Pyramid) were actually intended as ways by which the soul of the deceased king might ascend to join the circumpolar stars and the god constellation Sah (sahu).
The energy/memory that one carries in his or her sahu will filter down and can a) recreate a similar experience such as almost drowning in this life at the age in which one died by drowning in a past life, b) trigger spontaneous past-life recall such as may occur when a person first visits a foreign country, c) awaken a positive or negative reaction when first meeting someone, and d) bring past-life memories forward during hypnosis or altered state work.
In my opinion, experiencing past-lives energetically through the mind-field can come from different bodies: a) actual past-life memories filtered down from the sahu, b) metaphor or allegory from the personal unconscious, the haidit, or c) fantasy or ego-based imagination from the lower ka.
Higher Self information or contact with spiritual guides is reached in the higher ka. Generally speaking, other input comes from lower bodies. Therefore, desire of the personality (lower ka) or unconscious programming, beliefs, or emotion (in the haidit) can interfere with the clarity of information coming through regression or work with the Higher Self of the client.
The experienced past-life practitioner will admit to having some clients who appear to reach actual past-life memories, others who seem to be reaching a metaphor from the unconscious, others who might be tapping an archetypal personality, and still others who move into a fantasy about who they were in a past life.
I submit that it depends upon the consciousness of the client as to which subtle body energy he or she is reaching. For some clients, actual past-life memories may be stored in the sahu and filter down into the unconscious mind for a client to retrieve. Other clients may not be able to reach higher vibrational dimensions; their experiences in regression may be combinations of various energies that include imagination and metaphor, and perhaps some portions of actual past-life recall.
As past-life therapists and practitioners, we can benefit from considering the ancient Egyptian model of subtle bodies as independent, yet interconnected energy systems making up the wholeness of the human. This model can be used to expand our understanding in the field of past-life therapy and past-life regression.
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———. personal communication, 1997.
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